If you drop in to Hill’s Florist & Greenhouses, a family business with deep local roots and extensive community connections, you might meet up with a comparatively recent transplant from India. His name is Randeep Kush.
Randeep is acting as Roger Hill’s greenhouse supervisor, so it’s somewhere in that 25,000 square foot space you’d be most likely to find him.
This time of year he’s busy seeding plug trays with annuals, rooting begonias, petunias, and the roughly 10,000 geranium cuttings, and tending the hydrangeas and Easter lilies that will go on sale in April. Over the next few months he’ll be transplanting, fertilizing, setting up the drip irrigation, checking for pests and diseases, keeping everything organized and clean.
As May 24th approaches, you might see him organizing the nursery displays and on that peak weekend it might be Randeep who helps you load up bags of potting soil or some shrubs.
That time of year you might also see him downtown hanging the baskets of colourful annuals he will have designed and grown for the Downtown BIA.
When I sit down with Randeep on his lunch break it’s to hear what brought him to Lindsay and what it’s like to come here from a very different place and culture. I’m interested in seeing our town through his Eastern eyes and finding out what’s next for this hardworking, soft-spoken and exceedingly polite young man.
Randeep grew up in the village of Charunni in the northern Indian state of Haryana. His interest in cultivating plants started early. His father is a government official but his uncle is a farmer and Randeep spent lots of time on the farm, where at times there would be 10 to 15 workers tending to the wheat, rice and sugarcane using traditional methods.
He took a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture at Lovely Professional University in the Punjab. It gave him a solid understanding of modern agricultural practices, plant requirements and soil chemistry.
“In India,” Randeep tells me, “people use lots of chemicals. They have small farms and want to earn more money.” He felt the over-reliance on fertilizers was maybe not in the best long-term interests of farmers or their communities, so Randeep was on the lookout for more environmentally responsible approaches, which he felt could be just as productive, done properly.
An internet search brought Fleming College to his attention, in particular its one-year Sustainable Agriculture program, described as “an intensive, applied learning experience in sustainable, ecological or natural farming methods.”
Welcome to Canada
Randeep applied in December, 2015, was accepted by Fleming, and arrived in Peterborough in January — Peterborough because he didn’t know he needed to be at a separate campus, in Lindsay.
As Randeep tells me about his first months we’re sitting at ease in a space adjoining a heated greenhouse with almost tropical humidity. It’s hard to imagine what his first months must have been like.
He knew nobody and was in the wrong town. While he searched for Lindsay accommodation he stayed in the Super 8 Hotel in Peterborough (paying $100 a night).
After finding a rental on Mary Street in Lindsay he had to navigate his way around town on foot — in January — in clothing he’d brought from India. (Until he found a part-time job at Hill’s, a month after arrival, he didn’t have the money for proper winter clothes).
The foods and spices he’d grown up with weren’t available and, of course, there was no temple (Randeep is Hindu).
The loneliness is a theme he returned to. Coming from a country with a sixth of the world’s population packed into a space a third of Canada’s, he was struck by the empty streets.
“I would watch out of the window to see people around. It was unusual to (even) see young people on the streets.”
He liked the way people here respected one another, but noted everybody was busy, leading their own lives.
He wasn’t wrong: In winter, we lead our lives indoors and cocoon with our families; most often when we venture out it’s in a car.
Randeep was one of four international students in a class of twelve. (Two years later the numbers have mushroomed: currently there are roughly 75 students from India in a class that now numbers 87).
There were aspects of the Sustainable Agriculture program that served him well and that he appreciated. After his academic training in India, he liked having instructors with practical experience, and the field trips gave him exposure to a number of area farming operations.
Maybe the best component of all was the co-op placement midway through the year. He assisted experienced staff at Pfenning’s Organic Farm in Kitchener, one of the biggest organic vegetable farms in Canada. (Every day a dozen or so trucks would be loaded up and head off — mostly to the U.S., most often Florida).
A month after he came to Lindsay, Randeep approached Roger Hill, looking for part-time work related to his studies. Roger’s daughter, Sarah, works with his wife Deborah in the florist side of the business; but without his sons — one a firefighter, the other still at school — Roger needed greenhouse help.
It’s not for everyone though.
“Some who come looking for a job think you can run a greenhouse operation from a cellphone or laptop,” says Roger. “The reality is that it’s physically demanding.”
Randeep had farm experience and education, and there was something about him that Roger liked. He hired him.
It’s clearly worked out well. After Randeep returned from his summer co-op placement, Roger offered full time employment. Here’s his assessment: “Randeep has energy, education, intelligence, and a strong back; he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.”
It’s worked out well from Randeep’s perspective, too. He enjoys the work, the work environment, and Roger’s qualities as an employer. (Randeep’s assessment of Roger: “He’s a very cool person and a good guide. He knows what I can do and trusts me to do it.”)
Over time Randeep’s responsibilities have grown. Last summer, for example, he trained and supervised summer staff, including four Sustainable Agriculture students who had studied with him back in India and chosen Fleming at his encouragement.
Randeep feels fortunate. Of the four international students in his class, he’s the only one to find employment in their chosen field. (Of the others, one young woman returned to India and the other is now studying business in Scarborough; the other young man is working construction in Alberta).
“I struggled here,” he says, “but got a good life as a reward.” Good job with a good employer, a car, and a house (owned by Roger) that he’s renting with three friends.
He’s on a work permit now, but will soon be applying for permanent residency. He’s hoping to work a few more years at Hill’s and could easily see himself bringing up children here in Canada.
On the other hand, he could also see himself returning to India at some point, taking with him his new skills.
He remains deeply attached to his family and to his culture. Every couple of weekends he heads down to Brampton where there is a large community of Indian immigrants. He and friends might take in a Bollywood film and will certainly go out for Indian food — maybe shahi paneer or chole bhatore and some Indian sweets.
Randeep is an only child and last summer his mother (with whom he has a daily video chat) visited here. He took her on a boat cruise in the Kawartha’s and to Niagara Falls.
And in return? She brought him a supply of a commodity exceedingly scarce in Lindsay: garam masala, an aromatic mixture of cloves, cinnamon, mace, cardamom, cumin and other spices.
Afternote: This story is primarily about Randeep, his experiences and his perspectives as a newcomer to Lindsay. But Roger Hill, lifetime Lindsay resident and proprietor of a business that has been part of the community since 1946, plays a key role. The fascinating story of the Hills and their business is set out on their website: http://hillsflorist.ca/about